“King of my city, king of my country, king of my homeland”: A Black Panther soundtrack review

The album’s full title is ‘Black Panther Album: Music From and Inspired by’ and the 14-track project is exactly that. Rather than presenting a narrative parallel to the film, the songs instead offer a glimpse into the world of Wakanda, whether through lyrical overtones or the African-influenced production.

Kendrick Lamar begins the opening track to the album over melancholy piano contemplating the implications of being a king. One could easily read Lamar’s own life into his lyricism, yet the lyrics link equally closely to T’Challa, the main protagonist of the film. Throughout the album, Lamar switches between the perspectives of T’Challa and his nemesis, Erick Killmonger, and the lyrics bear an added weight in their eery relation to Lamar’s own legacy. It is therefore hardly surprising that long-time admirer, fellow West Coast native and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler had reached out to Lamar to curate this project, as he felt the Compton MC’s artistic themes “align with those that we explore in the film”. Big name artists and soundtrack albums are not a recent phenomenon (Prince is to Batman as Jay-Z is to The Great Gatsby) but having Lamar on board was certainly a coup more than it was a marketing ploy.

The hard-hitting kicks and beat switches on ‘Paramedic!’ make this track a necessity for anyone’s cardio playlist

Though the majority of sounds do not stray too far from today’s hip-hop, the album is brought to life through a diverse and impressive range of collaborators. There are appearances from industry heavyweights, such as Travis Scott, who brings a solid contribution on ‘Big Shot’. The track has Scott’s imprint all over it, from the catchy pan flute and trap beat to his verse, wherein his typical melodic rapping he makes a Steve Harvey reference and boasts of a lavish lifestyle.

Conversely, Lamar even provides a platform for upcoming artists to showcase their talent. ‘Paramedic!’, by relatively unknown collective SOB x RBE, is a standout track on the album where Lamar adopts Killmonger’s persona for his verse on the track whilst other musicians bring charismatic flows and ride the West Coast influenced instrumental. Michael B. Jordan, who plays Killmonger’s character, told an interviewer how he would use the track as part his workout routine in preparation for the role – and it’s not difficult to see why. Beyond links to the character’s aggressive energy, the hard-hitting kicks and beat switches make this track a necessity for anyone’s cardio playlist.

Blakrok upstages both Lamar and the talented Vince Staples with ‘Opps’, which projects the afrofuturism of Wakanda

Lamar also recruits South African artists Yugen Blakrok, Babes Wodumo and Sjava for the album. From Sjava’s infectious vocals in Zulu on ‘Seasons’ to the repetitive use of the kalimba, the South African influence is stamped across the album, emulating the pan-African experience seen in the film as Lamar attempts to fuse rap with Wakanda. Arguably the outstanding performance on the album is Blakrok’s verse on ‘Opps’. An EDM-influenced track, with its thumping bass and pulsating electronics projecting the Afrofuturism of Wakanda, she upstages both Lamar and the talented Vince Staples, whose stock continues to rise with another verse displaying his precise delivery. In just in 45 seconds, Blakrok flexes her lyrical prowess in a verse of varying flows and colourful metaphors and eclipses her compatriots by managing to rhyme ‘millipede’ with a ‘young Milly Jackson’. It is a brief reminder to American hip-hop heads of the burgeoning talents across the water.

A strong rap verse by Blakrok not only echoes the film’s message of female empowerment but is too a precursor for other compelling performances by women. SZA provides dreamy vocals on the cinematic love-duet and chart-topper ‘All The Stars’, while the soon-to-be superstar Jorja Smith’s ‘I Am’ soothes the audience with reflections on caring for others, and notions of change.

Without heavy-handedness, Lamar is a guardian angel in subtly piecing the project together; a praiseworthy attempt to curate a major film soundtrack.

Lamar’s TDE label-mates also make for impressive cameos on the album. Whether it is Schoolboy Q’s braggadocios claims that “not even Kendrick can humble me’” on ‘X’, Jay Rock effortlessly rapping double-time on ‘King’s Dead’, or even Ab-soul’s seamlessness on ‘Bloody Waters’, the album is somewhat of a victory lap for TDE as they continue to dominate hip-hop. It, therefore, makes the absence of fellow TDE member Isaiah Rashad even more noticeable, whose laid-back, the introspective style would be a fitting addition to the project’s production. One can only speculate around his exclusion; for his fans and for TDE certainly, this casts a shadow over the album’s success.

Whilst reams of feature collaborations do garner fan excitement, a few eyebrows are also raised on this front – is the project actually cohesive? Lamar does ensure that the album is coherent and that collaborating artists find common ground, thus allowing them to synchronise their talents on record. While he is credited on only four tracks, Lamar is omnipresent throughout the project, whether it be on hooks or ad-libs. Without heavy-handedness, he instead adopts the role of a guardian angel in subtly piecing the project together; a praiseworthy first-time attempt to curate a major film soundtrack. He continues to stun audiences the same way LeBron James bamboozles basketball viewers, with each song pushing us to pose a question – ‘what can’t he do?’

The Black Panther Album may not be Lamar’s most spectacular piece of work, but it should not be left in the back catalogue

But Lamar is helped greatly by a historical collaborator, Sounwave, who produces eleven of the album’s tracks, and provides a sense of direction, keeping ears engaged by allowing smooth transitions. In an era where producers often fail to get the credit they deserve, Sounwave’s influence should not be understated especially in his ability to maintain shifts between varied sounds across the album.

Although the Black Panther Album may not be Lamar’s most spectacular piece of work, it is definitely not one to be left in the back catalogue. There’s a certain freshness to the record, and it’s both a strong accompaniment to the groundbreaking film as well as an impressive standalone project. It would be hardly far-fetched to predict that big-name artists curating soundtrack albums will become more commonplace in the future following Lamar’s efforts, and so there is only one thing left to say: “All hail King Kendrick.”

 

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